One of the most important qualities of healthy relationships is authenticity – being who we are, frayed edges and all. Being authentic in a relationship creates connection, openness, trust and acceptance. Provided the relationship is based in genuine intent, authenticity means that there is no need for anyone to filter out the parts of themselves that might not make it into the top 100 ‘most adorable things about me’.
Of course there will always be times to put the woolly parts of ourselves away, but what does this look like when it comes to being parents? How much of our emotional selves should we put away to be good for our children and how much should we show?
There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t get sad, cranky, furious, scared from time to time. Sometimes these feelings find a decent grip and they stay for a while. In the midst of the heaviness, our kids will be watching everything we do. They might not know the details but they’re smart, and would likely get a sense when the outside of us doesn’t match what’s happening on the inside.
It’s completely understandable that we would want to protect our kids from the grown-up details of the messiness of life. There are some things that their child status protects them from. But there is a balance that needs to be struck.
New research has found that always putting on a happy face might not be the best for us or for our kids. The study found that parents who ‘try to be perfect’ for their children risk lower authenticity, poorer relationships with their children and reduced responsiveness to their children.
Part of the reason for this is that depressing negative feelings and exaggerating positive ones tends to lead parents to feel worse about themselves.
‘Parents experienced costs when regulating their emotions in these ways because they felt less authentic, or true to themselves … It is important to note that amplifying positive emotions was relatively more costly to engage in, indicating that controlling emotions in ways that may seem beneficial in the context of caring for children can come at a cost.‘ – Dr. Bonnie Le (lead author), University of Toronto.
One of our very important roles as parents is to nurture our children’s awareness around difficult emotions. What do big feelings look like? How do they feel? What do they mean? How do I deal with them? What about when those messy feelings belong to someone I love? There are plenty of lessons to learn, so it’s a good thing that we have plenty of time to teach them. And that we will be given plenty of opportunities.
The primary concern of children will always be ‘what about me’. The key then, is to let them see when we feel wobbly, but to let them know that we’ll be okay and so will they. Difficult emotions become threatening when they come with a bagload of unknowns, the biggest one being, ‘What does this mean for me.’ All feelings are important – the bad ones too. They are also unavoidable and part of living a healthy, happy, fulfilled life means knowing how to handle them.
When our children see us being okay with our own messy feelings, it gives them permission to do the same. They won’t have the skills to manage them for a while, and that’s okay. What’s important is that they see that everyone feels bad sometimes and that they have opportunities to learn from how we deal with them.
It is important to measure the intensity of our emotional honesty according to what our children can cope with. Nobody is suggesting that we expose our children to every square inch of our raw and fragile feelings, but the alternative to baring our emotional all doesn’t have to be hiding it. There is middle ground and it’s about the intensity of what we show and the reassurances we give with it. Letting them see that we feel difficult feelings too sometimes, and that we’re okay with that, will help them to expand their their emotional intelligence in terms of their own feelings, other people’s feelings, and how to manage them in a way that lets them thrive.
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